Ole Miss in the Trent Lott Era
What did you do in the race war, Daddy?
I WAS OFTEN BOTHERED about what happened to my gun during the James Meredith riots at Ole Miss. Quite a few people were shot during that crazed Sunday night in the fall of 1962. Two civilians died, and 168 U.S. marshals were wounded when bullets flew into the Lyceum Building. No one ever knew who was responsible. I always hoped my gun didn't play a part. I found out almost 30 years later.
I returned for my second year at Ole Miss in late September 1962, a New Englander straight off a summer job as a cop in Ocean City, Maryland. I hitchhiked from the Maryland shore to Oxford, Mississippi, in a day and night, catching a ride from two libidinous honeymooners. (I drove while they made out furiously in the back seat.) I never gave a serious thought to my police gun and a box of ammo sitting next to me in my sea bag. The country wasn't into liability yet. The pistol was big and old, but powerful--a .45 caliber Webley six-shot revolver--and I was used to toting it around.
When I arrived, Ole Miss was thrumming with excitement. James Meredith was due on campus in a few days. Everyone knew who he was: a 29-year-old military veteran, a Negro who had been turned down for enrollment by the university and governor the previous year because they didn't want Negroes, and who now had the support of the Kennedy administration. Bobby Kennedy and the U.S. Justice Department were planning to enroll Meredith by force.
I was a veteran, too. I had spent the previous year at Ole Miss under an NROTC program for enlisted sailors and Marines who'd graduated from the Naval Academy Prep School. So the South and its ways weren't an entirely new experience. Even so, Mississippi was in a cultural world pretty much of its own.
There were very few Yankees at Ole Miss that year, maybe a dozen or so undergraduates. I knew them all. Five of us lived in a farmhouse we rented about a mile from school. We had all moved from our dorms, in part because of hostility from some of the Ole Miss men.
They didn't like Yankees. Their fathers and grandfathers didn't like them either. Yankees had done bad things to the ancestors they felt a direct connection to even after all those years. Yankees had burned this town, and those houses, and had raped some of the women. They could show you where the houses had been and they knew some of the women's names.
Yankees still stood out 100 years later at Ole Miss. They dressed funny, wearing Bermuda shorts and no ties and no socks with those stupid loafers. And they were always trying to make moves on the women. Between the women and the no socks, there was a lot to hate about Yankees.
One of my roommates really drove them crazy. His name was Jim Murray, a shambling, sloppy, bear of a guy from Philadelphia. (He later wound up in San Francisco, where he became the guitarist for the Quicksilver Messenger Service.) Murray played the banjo. His repertoire consisted mainly of proletarian folk songs, crooning and strumming about the toils of Tom Mooney or Joe Hill and the Wobblies. He was a bit of a charlatan. The girls loved him.
Murray was plunking his banjo one night in his dorm room, warbling into a tape recorder so he could savor his own singing, when the window shattered. A bullet thudded into the wall near his head.
A lot of people didn't like Murray's singing, and I was one of them, but this seemed too serious a criticism. The bullet appeared to have come from an upperclassman's dorm. Murray had beaten a redneck senior silly the week before because the man kept ragging him about not wearing socks to class with his scuffy Bass Weejuns. Murray was lazy and laid back but he was also huge and very tough.
Soon after that, we rented the farmhouse for $60 a month. We took most of our meals on a neighboring dairy farm. The farmer was known to diners, friends, and relatives as, no kidding, Dirty Charlie. The name fit. Dirty Charlie looked like he never bathed and had crusted over. His wife was fat and cheery and a terrific cook.
Dinner was served at four. If you weren't on time the door was barred and you didn't eat. Charlie was dirty, but he was never late. You pulled up to the long kitchen table, with Mrs. Charlie's senile and toothless mom and a half-dozen grubby kids, and tucked in to bowls of chicken fried steak, gravy, plump fried chitterlings, sweet potatoes, turnips, collard greens, okra, pickled beets, corn bread, fresh butter and fresh milk and a deep-dish fruit pie for dessert--all this, with coffee, for exactly $1 each, cash, no checks.
You could feel trouble coming that fall. There was lots of talk about violence, and it seemed like a good idea to get rid of my gun. One afternoon I walked into Oxford with the revolver and ammo in a bag. I ran into Mr. John Faulkner along the way. His brother William, who could sometimes be seen driving through the town square in his red Nash rambler, had died late that summer. John was a writer, too, talented and accomplished, but of course completely overshadowed. I had gotten to know him the year before, because he hung out in the same restaurant where I studied at night.
I told Mr. Faulkner I had a gun and wanted to turn it in to the police for safekeeping. Let me take a look at it, he said. I handed it to him, and he spun the chamber. "Good idea to give it to Tatum, boy," is what he said, referring to the police chief. "That is a real horse pistol." He sighted it down the sidewalk and dry fired it.
I walked on to the police station on the square. It was almost empty. A police dog, a German shepherd, was tied to a desk. It growled at me so I skirted it and went back to a desk where I saw a police radio. What the hell. I got on it, introduced myself to whoever was listening and said, I've got a gun, I'd like a policeman to come back to the station. I want to turn it in.
If you did something like that now, you'd have the SWAT team dressed up like a Panzer Division outside. Even then, the Oxford police were not in love with my act.
A voice boomed out of a speaker. "Who is that?" I had already given my name once, so I repeated it. Stay right there, said the voice.
A few minutes later, I heard a car skid to a stop outside. Burns Tatum, large and red-faced, barreled through the door. He was annoyed at my using the radio, but since I'd been a cop for the summer, nothing fazed me. I showed him the pistol and asked to put it in his safe. No way, he said. Take it back to school. It's not my problem.
I walked on back to my old dorm. I wandered around and asked if anyone would like to buy a gun. A fellow named Louis Fred Fredericks, a plump, friendly sophomore who'd lived on my floor the year before, came out in his skivvies and asked to look at it. I'll take it, he said. For $25 I threw in the bullets. When I last saw him, he was spinning the chamber and dry firing out the window.
When the flag went up at Ole Miss a couple of days later, and things fell apart, I had a brief image in my head of Fred dry-firing that pistol out the window, maybe even wet-firing it. I was sure he was too kind a fellow to hurt anyone. At least I was pretty sure.
Wisps of smoke were still rising from charred vehicles when one of my Yankee roommates and I collected the remainder of our out-of-state tuition ($400 for the semester) and withdrew from school. Airborne troops in armored jeeps were patrolling the campus as we pulled out in his 1960 T-bird on the way to Route 66 and on to California. I stayed in California for the next 23 years. I never saw the old Webley again.
I certainly thought about it, though, and over the years I was a reporter, I thought occasionally about Paul Guihard, the young French newsman who was shot to death--"assailant unknown"--outside a dorm minutes after the riot started, and about the man who wandered on campus to see what was going on and took a bullet in the head from an anonymous shooter. As I became more responsible, I sometimes thought, please God, don't let that have been my gun in any of those shootings. I didn't think Fred would shoot anyone, but he might have given the gun to someone who would--the kind of man who, driven to the brink by sockless Yankees in Bermuda shorts, might have been pushed over the edge by the one black guy who wanted to go to his school.
By 1990 I was working in Washington. One morning, my secretary said, "You have a call from a man who says he is a friend from Mississippi. He has a deep accent." I don't have any male friends from Mississippi, I thought. It was Louis Fred Fredericks. He was now living nearby in Maryland, had seen my name in the paper, and wanted to have lunch.
"So tell me," I finally said to Fred, as we sat at the Occidental bar next to the Willard Hotel. "What did you ever do with that gun I sold you back when James Meredith came to school?"
"You know," he said, "I still have it, the Webley. . . . One of my kids dragged it out of a box a few years ago."
"Fred, where was the gun when all those shootings took place?"
"Oh," he said, "I took it home to Clarksdale that weekend. I left it at my parents' house so nothing bad would happen with it. After all these years, I've never even fired it once."
Richard W. Carlson is a former U.S. ambassador who once ran the Voice of America and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.